I met with a group of teachers on Thursday (shout out to Carterville!) to talk about A.I. text generators and the high school English classroom. The workshop’s theme was “English Gone Viral” and I was asked to focus on A.I., specifically ChatGPT.
First, as I told the group, I’m not an A.I. expert. I’m an English teacher-turned-curriculum designer who works in a library all day, which gives me more time than most classroom teachers to play with this tech. Given that, I do have some good news to share about ChatGPT (and the other half-dozen or so robot text generators about to hit the market): It’s not the end of the world and we can find good ways to use this new tool.
Here are my workshop talking points. (Note to Carterville folks: Sorry that buffering ate some of our time. I hope this post provides a deeper explanation of all we talked about.)
1. We tend to fear what we don’t understand. Despite media hysteria declaring ChatGPT to be the end of high school English and the death of the college essay, this is just another tool. Writing instruction is not going to disappear. The best analogy I’ve heard is that AI-text generators are to English class what calculators are to math class. Once students have learned their times table and know how to divide, then they can use a calculator to save time. Similarly, students need to be taught the building blocks of grammar and writing structure; once they know those skills, an AI-text generator can be a time-saver for basic foundational work. We still have math classes and we’ll still have English classes.
2. As with most technology, good and bad results will follow. Our job is to minimize the harm to students, while maximizing this tool for our own use and preparing students to use it in their future careers.
3. The best way to learn about new tech is to play with it. Try it out. A lot of us have strong opinions about something we haven’t yet used. You can sign up for a free account at chat.openai.com/auth/login. During the school day, the site is often at capacity and OpenAI, the company that owns ChatGPT, now offers a $20/month subscription allowing you to cut the line and ensure access. I’m not paying that. Other companies have launched their own text-bots, CanvaPro has MagicWrite, and Microsoft announced it’s about to fold a version of ChatGPT into Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint. It’ll be everywhere soon.
4. Students are already there. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this hasn’t reached your campus. It has. You might just not know it.
5. Cheating isn’t new. Long before ChatGPT, cheating was rampant among our students. In my classroom, I had to deal with overly involved parents who didn’t understand why the essay
they erm… their child wrote earned a “C-,” tutors who crossed the line between helping and doing, and the internet’s endless copy/paste temptations. ChatGPT is the latest form of what’s been around since we used Cliff Notes and our grandparents turned in their older siblings’ essays. (More on this in my “Ack! Students found my TpT shop” video: https://youtu.be/JXdz0TZ0b8w.)
6. A.I. is pretty good, but limited – for now. After playing with it for 50+ hours, ChatGPT seems most useful as a first-draft creator. The work it produces still needs refinement, improvement, the human touch. It needs fact-checking, too, as it will present false information as though it is accurate. As of Feb. 2023, it cannot cite sources, though it will make up false sources. I wandered down several research rabbit holes to discover that source material ChatGPT cited didn’t actually exist. The next version of ChatGPT is expected to launch later this year and while there’s lots of buzz about what it might include, the makers are tight-lipped. Like a small child learning to speak, the platform is learning from us with every query we make. Expect a lot more.
7. “Prompt engineer” is now a really good job. The writing ChatGPT creates is only as good as the prompt it is given. The people who are going to get the most benefit from text generators are the ones who will know how to talk to the robots, and that skill is already highly valued. A week ago, Anthropic posted a job listing for a “Prompt Engineer and Librarian” and the expected salary range “for this position is $175k – $335k.” Whoa. (Found via EdWeek’s article here.) So…teachers, librarians, students, all humans will need to know how to use these tools. Let’s figure it out.
8. What can teachers do? Given all of this, we need an action plan. Here are some things I would do if I was leading a class:
• Gather a handwritten baseline writing sample the first week of school. Read it, don’t grade it, and keep it in a portfolio that you return at the end of the year. This will help inform your teaching and serve as a measuring stick for students’ writing growth.
• Whenever possible, make writing an in-class experience. Yes, you will need to revise some of your assignments. Yes, writing will now fill more class time. And, yes, the growth of students’ writing skills will be much greater because of these efforts.
• Use technology to fight the good fight. Teachers can use tools like Google Doc’s revision history and schools must provide software that locks a student’s computer from accessing anything other than a writing exam screen. There’s also nothing wrong with pencil-and-paper writing tasks.
• Demo for your classes that you know how to use A.I. detection sites, like aiwritingcheck.org, to check their work. If you don’t know, it’s time to learn. Start with this blog post. The A.I. checker is easy to use and free.
• Use ChatGPT to make your life a little easier. Does your administration require write-ups of lesson plans that no one ever looks at? A robot can handle that tedium for you. Need to write an email to a difficult parent? ChatGPT is good at producing a polite and professional message devoid of emotion. Want a list of 10 discussion starters to use for class warm-ups? ChatGPT can give you a head-start.
• Embrace the spirit of lifelong learning. “May you live in interesting times” is an adage that can be taken as a blessing or a curse. Your mindset will help determine which of these the tech becomes for you.
Okay, teacher friend, what’s your take on this? Have you seen ChatGPT in your students’ work yet? What moves should we make now to get ready for tomorrow? Leave a reply!